American Gangster is loosely based on the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), notorious heroin kingpin of Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He took over from his mentor Bumpy Johnson. Lucas was a smart businessman. With the assistance of a cousin serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, he took hold of the heroin racket by offering a purer product, known as Blue Magic, at a lower price by going straight to the source and cutting out the middleman. His competition, the mob working in conjunction with crooked police officers, isn’t happy about the change in their market share and makes it known.
Richie Robbins (Russell Crowe) is a New Jersey cop, who may well be the last honest one around. When he turns in $1 million, he earns the scorn of almost all his co-workers and the esteem of his bosses, resulting in his being put in charge of a new narcotics task force. The mission is personal for Robbins because his former partner overdosed on Blue Magic.
As the investigation progresses, we see the men in their personal lives with their roles reversed. Lucas is a loving husband and doting. Robbins is in the middle of a divorce and custody battle because of his womanizing ways. Not only do the paths of Lucas and Robbins cross, they both come into contact with rogue New York City detectives led by Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin), who makes clear the pecking order.
Lucas' luck runs out as the war ends, cutting his supply line, and an underling takes a plea deal. Robbins could send Lucas away for the rest of his days, but offers a deal to have him provide information about every crooked cop he knows.
American Gangster is well made technically, no surprise with director Ridley Scott at the helm, and had good performances, especially from the two leads, but there’s not much to connect the viewer to the material. Other than the great scene between Lucas and Robbins at the end discussing the deal, there’s no electricity on screen, nothing to tell your friends about. It is dry and matter of fact, almost removed from the situations as they play out on screen. Too many other films, like Serpico, have covered the same ground and done it in better and more compelling ways. That goes for the talent themselves as Washington’s character from Training Day is a more menacing and intriguing figure than Lucas. It’s not a bad film, but there’s nothing that will be missed if skipped.
What shouldn’t be skipped by those who are intrigued by the filmmaking process is the marvelous commentary track featuring Scott and writer Steven Zaillian in separate sessions. It is very informative about the many aspects of the film, including the early stages of pre-production as they worked on the script, moved onto other projects when it went into turnaround, and then returned to make the project. Scott gives a master class in directing, talking this film and others and how he works with actors, the writer, and the cinematographer. He provides informative technical info. Zaillian talks about his process as a screenwriter, from what he was trying to accomplish in the script to what he does during production.
The extras also include an alternate opening, deleted scenes, and a very short feature with the cast and their real-life counterparts. On the flipside, the standard version offers an unrated extended version of the film with 22 extra minutes, which includes a warning that it may affect playability on some DVD models.